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About Case Method

Report Requirements
1. Write the report in essay style. Charts, tables, and figures need to be inserted near the relevant
2. 12 font size, double space, simple binding.
3. Complete reference in the AMA or APA format.
4. 5-10 pages for the main body of the report. Additional information can be put in appendix.
This dossier mainly bases on the book, The Case Study Handbook, by Professor William Ellet at
Harvard University. It provides a brief explanation on basic ideas and structure of three case
methods. For comprehensive development of case study skills, students are encouraged to read the
original book for extensive advices on how to read and write a case analysis. This paper includes
the following parts: (1) What is the case method of learning? (2) How to digest the case material?
(3) Basic requirements for writing a case analysis paper; (4) Integrative CASE thinking;
The Heuristic Value of Case Method
Case method is designed to develop strategic thinking skills of participants. It is done through
immersing into the messy situation, and practicing the art of persuasion. The effect of learning is
often generated out of a journey of discovery and exploration of the unorganized description of
reality, which demands strategic decisions under high degree of uncertainty.
The case is a description of challenging situations faced by organizations or individuals. It
includes multiple activities, events, and overlapped interactions among different players, and one
of them would be the main character or protagonist who is usually in a dilemma. Your job is to
take his/her role and figure out the situation and get out of the dilemma. By muddling through a
messy situation, you would feel through the development of realistic events as the
protagonist, learn the skills of strategic thinking and action planning with the guidance of concepts
and frameworks in strategic management, and hopefully to apply them in the future.
As of teaching by the case method, there would be no teacher who instructs rules and students
who receives information, but participants who work together to co-produce the new knowledge
through active questioning, venturing inquiry, and constructive dialogue. By practicing a mental
judo (engaging into a collective process of listening, observing, expressing, criticizing,
constructing, elevating thoughts), participants learn to form arguments and unfold persuasion. It is
an art of communication.
As an analog of reality, cases were often filled with disjointed and distracting information. It is the
task of participants to sort out the relevant pieces of evidences, link the gaps with inferences, and
compose cohesive arguments by logical reasoning.
Digesting Cases by Active Reading
The understanding of a case starts from active reading of case situations. For this class, three
typical types of situations occur repeatedly in cases: strategic problem definition, strategic
performance evaluation, and strategic decision making recommendation. Active reading includes
the determination of the type of situation, suggestion of main questions, proposition of hypotheses,
citation of proofs, construction of actionable contents, design of alternatives, and responses to
potential risks. The active reading includes many trials and errors. It is an iterative process of
thinking with constant revisions and alignments.
In summary, for our class, the three types of situations are (1) problem; (2) decision; and (3)

evaluation. Figuring out the type of situation involved is the first task of your reading. The
characteristics of the three types are summarized below. For more detailed explanation, please
read the handbook by Professor Ellet.
Problem situation: the term problem here is slightly different from our conventional usage.
Problem as a case situation is defined by specifics. First, it involves a significant outcome or
performance; second, the outcome or performance has no explicit causal explanations. In short, a
problem is a situation in which something important has happened, but we dont know why
it did. (Ellet, 2007, P21). By figuring out the causes, you will help the protagonist to gain the
knowledge and improve the situation.
The problem situation not only includes bad outcomes, but also successes. A company may have
an unexpected good year, but didnt know why so. Finding the causes of successes can help the
main character to extend the excellence into the future. The problem analysis usually starts with a
definition of the problem, which is often not so obvious in case description,. You then develop
your analysis with explanations of the causes as well as proposed actions for future improvement.
That is the main work of this type of case analysis.
Decision situation: although all cases involve judgements, the decision situation is organized
around an explicit decision. The decision may regard whether to launch a new product, pursue an
international partnership, or spending on human capital development. Decisions featured in cases
have different characteristics, and may vary in scope, consequence, or available data. Decision
analysis includes the identification of the decision, appropriate criteria used in assessing
alternatives, alternatives for selection. Based on the above, you will make recommendation on one
of the alternative and provide a brief action plan. Usually, it is easy to identify the decision which
is supposed to be distinctive in the case, but more difficult to develop a few broad criteria for
decision analysis. The goal of decision analysis is to show that the recommended decision has the
best fit between the criteria and available evidence.
Evaluation situation: Evaluations express a judgment about the worth, value, or effectiveness of
a performance, act, or outcome. The unit of analysis of an evaluation case can be an individual, a
group, a department, an entire organization, a country, or a global region. (Ellet, 2007, P23).
Evaluation situation often assesses the outcomes of completed activities, events or projects, for
example, the dynamics and effectiveness of rivalry competition between Coke and Pepsi. Similar
to the decision situation, evaluation analysis needs to develop criteria; different from decision
situation that weighed more on the positive sides of the recommended alternative, evaluation
emphasizes both the negative as well as positive aspects. The quality of the evaluation analysis
reflects in the best fit between the evidences and criteria. Therefore, developing criteria and align
them with supportive evidences are critical in evaluation analysis.
In reality, practitioners must go through all three stages of strategic thinking, how to define the
challenge (problem), which aspects must be considered (evaluation), what decisions to make
(decision). Through the semester, we use three exercises on three cases to develop corresponding
skills and encourage students to integrate them together in future applications.
An Iterative and Dialectic Process of Experimenting
The case situation can be ambiguous and hard to determinate by first impression. It often goes
through several rounds of discussions among team members before final selection. You are
encouraged to try one type based on your first reading of the case. At least you will develop the
initial thinking framework to ask questions. However, when you cannot make sense out of the
selection, you must be ready to move on to the next one of your best guess. Your experimentation
on different logical routes will never be wasted. It will only help to deepen your understanding of
the case and sharpen your argument.
Once you feel comfortable with the selection of the type of situation, you should revisit the case,
and go through the following discussions with your team members:


How to characterize the situation, and make a concise statement about it?
What are the main questions we can ask?
What are the tentative explanations to our questions (our hypothesis)?
Where are the evidences to validate our tentative explanations?
What kinds of actions implied or derived out of your analysis?
What are the alternatives to take the action?
Where would be the potential downside (risks) of your suggested actions?
How to respond to the potential downside in case it happens?
How to weigh each part of the above in your communication with the audience (written case
analysis and presentation)/
10. Can you use a flow chart, key words or diagram to re-organize your chaotic and non-linear
thoughts and discussions into a sequential and linear process of argument?
Writing Up Your Case Analysis
The way you read and discuss cases is different from that of writing them up. Initial discussions
and exploration can be chaotic and non-linear. Good ideas never show up in clear formats but
emerge out of dynamic and critical exchanges among group members. You are encouraged to
venture into various directions in discussion. Meanwhile, writing demands disciplined formats for
better communications with the general audience who not necessarily knew all the information
and they didnt participate in group discussions, so they dont know the extensive background of
the case. To persuade them, you need to develop a logical and sequential story line that links your
position statement, explanatory arguments, evidences and proofs, and actionable alternatives
In correspondence with the three types of case situations, three basic structure of writing are
suggested to benefit the beginners. I will briefly illustrate the characteristics and formats of the
writing structures. They are all from Ellets handbook on case study.
Characteristics of a persuasive case essay: convincing the reader that your conclusion is valid is
the ultimate purpose of the case essay. The power of persuasion usually comes from four sources
integrated in the essay.
First, your essay addresses what is the situation, why so, and how to improve it.
Second, it is to make a clear position statement (what) in the first part of your essay. The
position statement expresses the conclusion of your analysis. It guides the reading of the entire
essay. The statement usually includes a brief summary of the situation, a conclusion of the
analysis, and summary of main proofs and actions. A well crafted statement not only attracts the
reading interests but also prepare the readers with logical clues of writing follows.
Third, you need to organize evidences (why) to support the conclusive statement so readers could
be convinced. The evidences may directly come from the case material, or inferred from the facts
in the case. In our exercises, you are allowed to include researched evidences in addition to the
case material.
Forth, all analyses imply changes or improvements from the current situations. If it is a problem,
readers would like to know how to solve the problem given we now know the causes; if it is a
decision, readers expect the implementation of it; if it is an evaluation, then how to minimize the
negative, and enhance the positive. The actionable contents are often built up through the analysis,
so readers wont be surprised at your suggested action steps for short term, midterm, or long term
I will provide more detailed guidance regarding the writing structure in separate files. The

following gives you basic ideas of what are expected in writing.

Problem essays: The task of problem analysis is to find the causes that explain the outcome,
performance, or any other significant results. The analysis starts with a problem definition,
follows with diagnosis, proof of causes, and action plan.
Usually, the problem is looked from the view of the main character in the case. If there are
multiple characters and the main one is less distinctive, you need to state the protagonist, so the
position and perspective are clear.
The problem definition can be a paragraph that covers a briefing of the situation and then the
problem definition.
The diagnosis sketches causes of the problem that invite readers to go further on their detail
proofs. The proof of cases extends the main messages from the diagnosis into specific
identification of individual cause and its supportive evidences.
Problem action plans lead to the improvement of the situation in the future. It could be the
correction of ineffective activities, or extensive application of success factors. The last part invites
your imagination and visionary thinking into the future.
Decision essays: six elements must be included in the writing of a decision essay. It often starts
with a recommended decision (position statement), so readers know the result first. A following
statement should cover brief summary of the situation, decision criteria, decision options, and
most importantly the recommended decision.
Following the opening statement, you can list decision options with more details, and then
decision criteria. Using the discussion on options and criteria, you organize the proof of
recommended option, so readers can gradually see the option suggested later is the best fit
between the criteria and the recommendation. Critique of options is necessary, otherwise, no base
for your recommendation. The critique should include the recommended one. It helps to reveal
hidden or potential risks associated with the recommended option. Decision without action brings
no value to organizations. Therefore, it is important to complement the recommendation with a
brief plan for action.
Evaluation essays: an evaluation essay must analyze both sides of the subject, must include
factors that support your bottom-line assessment, and those opposing it, and any that fall in
between (Ellet, 2007, P163).
An appropriate evaluation essay includes at least five elements. Its opening paragraph states the
bottom-line evaluation (position statement), then evaluation criteria, proof of the evaluation,
qualifications, and ends with an action plan.
Selecting evaluation criteria is the most critical part of your analysis. Them need to be broad and
general enough so different evidences can be included in the proof. Also, too many criteria may
invite internal conflicts and confusion from the audience. You need careful thinking in identifying
the most relevant and the most critical ones. Usually, you use 2-3 criteria for your evaluation
Another challenge is to provide qualifications of your criteria. They often cannot be found in case
material directly, but inferred from your analysis. For example, in conducting evaluation of a nonprofit organizations strategy, we may argue stakeholders satisfaction rather than operating
efficiency should be the primary criterion. To qualify, we need to state that eliminating wastes
must be emphasized in operation, although it is not the same kind of cost-benefit analysis as
conducted in business organizations. Without appropriate qualification, readers might consider
your analysis biased and narrow-minded. They would then not take your bottom-line judgment as

credible and convincing.

This document also benefits from the following references. For further assistance on how to
compose analysis and write a quality essay, please check the following books.
Ellet, William, 2007. The Case Study Handbook: How to Read, Discuss and Write Persuasively
About Cases. Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Massachusetts.
Williams, Joseph, 1994. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace. Harper Collins College Publishers,
New York.
Booth, Wayne, Gregory Colomb and Joseph Williams, 1995. The Craft of Research, University of
Chicago Press, Chicago.

Problem Case Format

Executive Summary
A problem case involves situations that we dont fully understand or we have difficulty to define.
It can be used to explain both failure and success in business. Usually, the situation is complicated
or ambivalent, and decision makers are unable to identify the causes of the phenomena they are
facing. A cause-effect analysis of the problem will help to reveal activities, factors, and forces
underlying the problem. Once it is clarified, the protagonists can take actions to improve the
current situation. Our tasks in problem case analysis include situation statement, problem
definition, diagnosis, cause-effect analysis, and an action plan. In the process of analysis, we need
to clearly state the concept/framework used for our diagnosis and cause-effect explanations. In our
particular case on Dell, the concepts and frameworks are based on the two models for internal and
external analysis.
Situation Statement
After extensive research, thorough reading, and intensive group discussions, the team needs to
draft a concise description of the situation Dell is facing. The situation statement is NOT a simple
summary of case materials. It should set up the stage for your analysis, prepare readers with
critical background information, and guide them to your problem definition with ease. Previous
experiences indicated that groups usually went through several rounds of discussions of the case
before drafting the situation statement. They also revisit the statement after completed the other
parts of the analysis to fine tune the wording and logical flow for better presentation.
Problem Definition
When you define a problem, you first try to understand the key effects or outcomes that constitute
the problem, and then look back to actions, forces, and factors that contributed to the outcomes.
For example, in our discussion on Build-A-Bear, we identified a successful business practice in
toys retail in North America while other toy stores were complaining about the importation of
cheap toys from Asia. We then investigated possible causes of the unexpected success of Build-ABear, which constituted a strategic problem. After a general mapping of the cause-effect, we may
problemize the strategic issue as unclear way of constructing new advantages in a very
competitive toy market. Our problem definition sets a motion to investigate the success factors of
a new business model, and generates an expectation that our analysis will lead to an action plan at
the end.
The diagnosis often summarizes the principal causes of the problem in general. In a well
researched diagnosis, conceptual and theoretical frameworks are often mentioned to strengthen the
authority of the analysis. Still using the example of Build-A-Bear, a brief diagnosis may include
the financial and market successes of the company in contrast to competitors, summary of
suspected causes to its success, major uncertainties remained to be investigated and clarified. The
short and sharp diagnosis paves the way for further detail explanations of each cause-effect
relationship in the following.
Cause-Effect Analysis: Illustrating Causal Links
In this part, analysts need to show the readers why the diagnosis is valid. In the example of BuildA-Bear, you go from (1) outsourcing basic materials from China for the store; (2) creating value
by inserting cultural icons and stories; (3) developing a new HR forces; (4) location and
positioning in local markets etc. In each part of the analysis, you provide critical support and
evidences of your analysis.
Action Plan

The task of the action plan for a problem case analysis is to improve situations involving poor
performance, sustain those involving high performance, or do both. (Ellet, 2007, P124-125) In
the example of Build-A-Bear, if you are analyzing on behalf of a competitor, you need to suggest a
brief plan to imitate and outperform the store. If you are analyzing for the store itself, you need to
address the weakness and vulnerability of the business model and suggest steps to strengthen it for
sustainability. You need to assume a role at the beginning in your situation statement, so you can
provide a general action plan according to your assumed role.

Basic Format for Decision Case Analysis

Situation Summary
1. Apply problem case analysis
2. Summarize the decision situation
3. To be or not to be?
Options (Strategic Alternatives)
1. Exclusive to each other
2. Real alternatives
3. Prepare for your recommendation
You must suggest criteria for decision making based on the case material. It may related to the
1. Apply evaluation case methods
2. Growth objectives, speed to the market, market power and network effects
3. Survival and grow
4. Fence off competitors, entry barriers
5. Rapid stage transfer from embryonic to mature
You need to suggest one option, and conduct analysis along the following dimensions:
1. The advantages and disadvantages of your recommendation
2. The critical disadvantages of other options
3. Possible remedies to the disadvantages of the option you recommended
Action Plan
In this part, you should outline the steps to harvest on the advantages and prepare for the
challenges due to the disadvantages.
Uncertainty (key areas that you dont have enough information and knowledge to judge, but must
watch closely)
1. Substitutes
2. Rivals
3. Government regulations

Ellet, William, 2007. The Case Study Handbook: How to Read, Discuss and Write Persuasively
About Cases. Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Massachusetts.
Williams, Joseph, 1994. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace. Harper Collins College Publishers,
New York.
Booth, Wayne, Gregory Colomb and Joseph Williams, 1995. The Craft of Research, University of
Chicago Press, Chicago.

Tool for Case Preparation and Discussion

This form can be used to organize your thoughts about a case. The original design is from HBS
case coach method, and revised for this class.
List potential issues: Describe the type of case and the focus issue for your analysis.

List learned concepts that can be applied: Write down any principles, frameworks or
theories that can be applied to this case from the textbook and lectures.

List relevant qualitative data: evidence related to or based on the quality or character of

List relevant quantitative data: evidence related to or based on the amount or number of

List relevant claims: What evidence have you accumulated that supports one interpretation
over another.

List relevant actions: List and prioritize possible recommendations or actions that come out
of your analysis.

Describe your preferred action plan: Write a clear statement of what you would
recommend including short, medium and long-term steps to be carried out.